July 2020 – Local start-ups have been rising to the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic with agility and creativity. This year's HKTDC Entrepreneur Day (E-Day), organised by the Hong Kong Trade Development Council (HKTDC), underwent a transformation in terms of format and content, with a series of seminars broadcast live on 16 and 17 July giving start-ups valuable insights into finding a path forward during this difficult time.
Running under the theme “Revive‧ Redefine“, the 2020 E-Day invited a high-powered panel of speakers to speak at 19 online seminars, offering insights into areas such as entrepreneurship, regional opportunities and technological developments to equip start-ups for future challenges. Virtual business matching sessions were also arranged, connecting local start-ups with companies in Japan, Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and the United States to help them continue to capture business opportunities amid the current economic adversity.
Insights into the future: four “bigs” and 10 “game changers”
Broadcasting from Switzerland, globally renowned futurist Gerd Leonhard, CEO of The Futures Agency,shared in “T-Chat: Futurising Your Business: Renaissance from the Age of Digitalisation” the trends for entrepreneurship and opportunities for start-ups to thrive in the “new normal”. Mr Leonhard explained that there would not be a post-COVID-19 return to normality, and that the new normal would be very different.
The world is undergoing a Great Transformation, he said, with four “bigs” playing a leading role — Big Tech, Big Media, Big State and Big Health. “Technology is everywhere. Without technology, we wouldn't be working from home, we couldn't find new ways to address the crisis. We couldn't analyse all the data. Without the AI (artificial intelligence), we couldn't have early warning systems,” Mr Leonhard said. He added that the state helps to figure out how to restart the economy and to support the people, and that healthcare is becoming the number one issue. “We are going to have to put more money, more research into healthcare development and biotechnology,” he said, “We all are addicted to the media now because we are at home. Big media is exploding. These four things together have huge opportunities.” The result, he said, would be “HellVen”, explaining it could be heaven or it could be hell, depending on how it is handled.
The future presents utter uncertainty, Mr Leonhard posited. Businesses needed to abandon traditional, pre-COVID ways of doing things and adapt to the VUCA normal — volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. He advised entrepreneurs to flip VUCA and turn around the threats of the pandemic with “velocity, unorthodoxy, co-creation and awesomeness — to respond with speed and come up with new ideas, to work together, and to create solutions that can make a difference.”
Technologies are developing extremely fast, and the COVID-19 pandemic is accelerating this further. The crisis and technological potential would drive extremely rapid and very disruptive change, he said, with more progress over the next decade than the world had seen over the previous century.
Mr Leonhard said 10 game-changers would shape developments over the coming decade, with the COVID-19 pandemic accelerating the impetus for change. The first game-changer would be “data everything” — with data as the “new oil”, businesses need to have the numbers at hand to go forward. “Lots of start-ups in Hong Kong and all over the world are dealing with data,” he said. This leads to the second game-changer — “cloud everything”, with vast amounts of data calling for copious storage space. The next game-changer would be “connected everything” — through the Internet of Things (IoT) not just everyone but everything, be it appliances or vehicles, will be connected through the internet.
Another game-changer would be “compute everything”, with quantum computers that are virtually unlimited in computing power. The next game-changer is “understand anything”, whereby natural language processing will enable us to speak to machines as if they were humans. “Smart everything” will see machine learning greatly increasing the ability of machines and systems to adapt to change. Transactions will join communications as a game-changer, as blockchain technologies greatly expand the scope for, and reliability of, transactions.
Mr Leonhard said another game-changing development that will have great relevance to anyone trading in goods is the distribution of production. Improvements in the scope and quality of 3D printing mean items can be produced anywhere. “We will be able to print anything, from our tennis shoes to our wrist watches,” he explained. Massive increases in the power of media technologies will expand the scope of media offerings, enabling people to “see everything” in the future through technologies such as virtual reality — and the current trend for working from home had given this a big boost. Improvements in genetic engineering mean it will be possible to “change anything” — a development that has massive ethical implications.
Panellists who appeared alongside Mr Leonhard at the seminar included Karena Belin, CEO & Co-founder of WHub; Toa Charm, Associate Professor, Business School, the Chinese University of Hong Kong; and Herbert Chia, Venture Partner at Sequoia Capital China. Mr Charm said that many Asian conglomerates rejected technological innovation in the past, and it was only when faced with growing competition that they began to open their doors to change. Referencing the current rapidly transforming business environment, hesaid: “All Asian conglomerates are opening up their doors to new technologies. They are thinking: 'I don't know about this, but I need it because my shopping malls, my hotels, my properties — nobody goes there to buy now'. I think this presents a golden opportunity for all of us — start-ups and technology companies, and enablers like incubators and accelerators.”
In response to a question about leadership and how human skills are becoming more valuable, Mr Chia, said: “At this moment, when talking to a lot of CEOs in the field, I find there's a gap between the knowledge they already have and the knowledge needed to translate a business problem into a technology solution. Or, the other way round, where I have a technology solution, but I don't know what to fix.” He believes successful leaders will be those who can bridge this gap and give their companies a clear direction.
Agility and understanding social norms
At the “Revive‧Redefine” plenary session, William Ip, Managing Director of Carousell Hong Kong, and Crystal Pang, Co-founder of Pickupp, shared tips on entrepreneurship and their personal experiences of turning creative ideas into viable business ventures.
Mr Ip shared three tips with the audience: be agile, be a good listener and keep your business alive. Quoting celebrated scientist Stephen Hawking, who said that intelligence is the ability to adapt to change, Mr Ip highlighted the importance of agility for start-ups and entrepreneurs, especially in a challenging climate. He said that business drivers will change, and that development teams must be ready to adapt. “Being a start-up, we need to act very quickly and stay very close to the market. Sometimes you make decisions that seems to be correct at the time, but we also have to be prudent, agile, and humble — if that decision doesn't turn out to be the right decision, we need to change quickly,” Mr Ip explained.
His second tip was to be a good listener. Businesses have to listen to their target audience and address the needs of the market segment, he said. As the retail sector has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, Carousell has been leveraging its platform to help small and medium-sized enterprises get online and connect with more customers. Lastly, Mr Ip said the most important goal for start-ups must be to stay alive as a business. Enterprises need to prepare for an uncertain future and think ahead to understand what the world will be like tomorrow.
Ms Pang offered insights into the classic question of how both technology and understanding social normscan be used to improve services. Customers want things cheap, flexible and traceable. She noted that while it is now very inflexible to operate a traditional logistics fleet, crowdsourcing was a viable option. “There is a lot of idle capacity in the city, and a lot of people with downtime,” she said. “Students, maybe they work until 3pm then have four or five hours of downtime. Semi-retirees, they are still very healthy and can run around and do neighbourhood deliveries. Are we able to utilise them effectively, as long as there is good technology to trace and do quality control?”
Ms Pang also explained how advanced computerised systems were necessary when employing a more flexible and dynamic delivery system. For Pickupp's platform, thousands of deliveries will go out at any given time, all with different weights and dimensions, which need to be bundled together at the lowest cost.
Creating happiness can lead to growth
Katherine Cheung, Chief Marketing Officer at online education platform Snapask, shared on how the start-up has been able to grow its business in a difficult environment at a seminar titled “From Crisis to Chances: Unleashing Opportunities in Challenging Times“. She described online education as “hard to start, harder to win”.
With the goal of offering the best online learning experience, the Snapask team conducted in-depth research and ran numerous surveys to identify what would make users happy. They found that an instant experience and instant support were important for online learners, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. In response, the start-up made one small product change, to move all the fast-responding and always-online tutors to every single page possible whenever users log in so they can offer immediate support. Ms Cheung said that faster matching of students and tutors has resulted in more referrals and retentions, so “creating happiness means growth,” she said.